For many years I was deeply offended when people took the Christ out of Christmas, and I could not imagine why people would let all of this crass commercialism overwhelm the birth of Jesus. So, it came as a great surprise, in my little world, to learn that the Solstice celebration had been going on for thousands of years before the time of Jesus, and that there is little or no reason to believe that Jesus was born in December.
While we'll never know all of the details for certain, there was a convergence of several different factors that came together in Rome, during the 4th century after Jesus' death, to establish December 25th as Jesus' birthday.
From Babylon to Rome, for thousands of years, virtually every culture has had some sort of celebration for the solstice. The winter solstice is the darkest, shortest day of the year, and since it marks the time at which the glorious light returns, the solstice has long been an occasion for great celebration and rejoicing.
On the surface, the solstice celebration is often a rejoicing of the return of the sun with the promise of the greening of the earth and the warming of the days. But on a deeper spiritual level, the solstice celebration honors the birth and rebirth of the glorious Holy Light which guides and sustains all of creation, the One Light that illuminates every heart and promises new growth, the warmth of loving-kindness and the brilliance of illumination to all of mankind.
The sun god Mithra (Mithra in Persian, Mitra in Sanskrit) was highly honored and well known across the entire region from India to Rome. In the ancient Vedic hymns of India, Mitra is often invoked together with Varuna so that the two are combined as 'Mitravaruna': Varuna is lord of the cosmic rhythm of the celestial spheres, while Mitra brings forth the light at dawn, which was covered by Varuna.
In the Zoroastrian religion, the sun-god Mithra was highly honored as a major deity, and interestingly, the birth of Mithra is celebrated at the eve of the winter solstice called Shab-e Yalda in Farsi (Persian).
The Romans had a great number of temples dedicated to Mithra, and the winter solstice celebration dedicated to the sun god Mithra was indeed a major event in their lives.
In the ancient world, much of the day to day life was centered on a keen awareness of the sun, the stars and the seasons. For thousands of years, the return of the sun at the time of the winter solstice has been a time of good cheer and great celebration, both secular and spiritual.
The early Christians did not celebrate the birth of Jesus. The early church fathers Origen (d.255), St. Irenaeus (d. 202), and Tertullian (d. 220) do not include Christmas or its date on their lists of feasts and celebrations.
In fact, nobody really knows when Jesus was born. Church father Clement of Alexandria tells us that certain theologians had claimed to have determined not only the year of the Jesus' birth but also the day; that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus and on the 25th day of Pachon (May 20) (Stromata, I, 21). He also added that others said that he was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi (April 19 or 20). Another piece of evidence is De Paschae Computus of 243, which states that Jesus was born on March 28.
Many modern scholars, using the details given in the bible, suggest that Jesus' birthday was likely before October or after March. So, although we don't know when Jesus was born, it seems quite unlikely that it was on December 25th.
The Church In Rome:
The early church fathers in Rome were perhaps feeling a bit left out by all the celebrations that were going on at the time of the Solstice. It's all too difficult to control people who are busy celebrating for just any old reason.
It was not at all common in those days to celebrate a person's birthday, but something drastic had to be done to get the church into the celebration. So, in order to eclipse the solstice celebration of the sun god Mithra, in the middle of the 4th century after Jesus' death, the newly converted Emperor Constantine declared December 25th to be the official birthday of Jesus.
Within a few years, the altars of the temples of Mithra had been destroyed and the temples were quickly rededicated to the activities of the church of Rome. Just that suddenly, the winter solstice which was perhaps the greatest celebration known to the ancient world, was transformed into a matter of church doctrine.
In later years, the English gave this celebration the name Cristes mæsse, literally, Christ's mass... and from that we have inherited the word Christmas.
It's ironic how little many of us know, or care, about history, yet there are great treasures of truth to be found in the lives and celebrations of those who have gone before us.
This celebration of the return of the light is a wonderful time to honor and remember the highest of ideals, the greatest of principles and the glorious gift of illumination, the One Light that illuminates every heart. And for this reason, a wide variety of cultures all around the globe have long enjoyed celebrations at this time of year.
For millions of people worldwide, Jesus Christ represents the highest of ideals, the greatest of principles and the most wonderful of holy Light, so it's hard to imagine a better time to celebrate Jesus' birthday, regardless of when it actually is.
Even more importantly, when is the birthday of the glorious Christ Light within you? May we dedicate the Holiday Season to allowing that Greatest of Lights, the Divine Light, to shine forth in our own everyday thoughts and actions, bringing love, harmony and beauty to every situation, bringing peace and good-will to all of mankind.
Call it Christ, call it Buddha-nature, call it Rasul, what really matters is that we allow this glorious Light to be born into our own life... and what better time is there than now?
May the glory and wonder of the ever-returning Divine Light fill the
world with clarity, vision and understanding...